Ann Hampton Callaway :: Color Her Barbra

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 25, 2012

Singer and songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway brings her new show, The Streisand Songbook, to New York's celebrated new nightspot 54 Below, September 25-29.

The jazz-influenced cabaret star has recorded over a dozen solo albums (including two with her sister Liz) and written numerous songs for recording artists, including three for Streisand herself. Callaway was Tony-nominated for her turn in "Swing" (2000). She is also known worldwide for writing and singing the theme to television's "The Nanny."

EDGE recently chatted with Callaway about the new show and to catch up with her about her career.

Why Barbra?

EDGE: You said in an interview with us a few years ago that it's a challenge to perform songs made famous by other people. So why Barbra? Why now?

Ann Hampton Callaway: When Liz and I were working on "Boom," it put me in a retrospective mood for pop songs. Also, I've been a person who has been fortunate enough to create for Barbra. Her influence on me not only as a singer, but as an artist of our time. She has made an impact on so many levels.

EDGE: How have you approached her songbook?

Ann Hampton Callaway: I wanted to do a three-pronged approach to Barbra Streisand. First, I wanted to do a loving celebration of who she is and how she has grown as an artist. I originally did this show with the Boston Pops, which had more of the hits, but I'm trying to find a nice mixture to reflect all of her artistry.

Plus, I've added a few of my own songs into the mix to give it a personal touch. The second prong is her interesting, beautiful taste in music over the years. She entered the industry when rock was taking hold, but she stayed true to her theatrical roots, songs she could act. When Columbia Records signed her at age twenty, she had the integrity to demand the right to choose her own material. That was unheard of. So the third prong would be to celebrate how she has remained true to herself.

Finding love

EDGE: Did you get butterflies meeting her?

Ann Hampton Callaway: Yes, and I still do. She's the one person I still feel that way that way about. I'm very shy around her, but I sense that she's kind of shy too. I feel protective of her. [Laughs] But the first time I spoke with her on the phone, I thought I'd have a heart attack!

EDGE: Growing up in Chicago must have been very influential on you, musically.

Ann Hampton Callaway: Well, I was there for the first ten years of my life. I remember my parents would go to a place like Mister Kelly's and come home and tell us about seeing George Shearing. But we moved to New York when I was ten, and that had a stronger impact. That's when we'd go see Broadway shows.

Also, my mother was a singer and pianist, so we'd come home and hear her singing show tunes in the middle of the day. I mean, she sang with symphonies. My father was a journalist and musician. So it was a great childhood and a perfect combination of parents. There were lots of books and records in the house. I did go back to Chicago to attend New Trier, a high school with a great performing arts department. I had all the building blocks.

EDGE: One of my favorite songs of yours is "Finding Beauty" (from "At Last," 2009), written for your partner Kari. Now you've been together for five years. How has love deepened or changed since then?

Ann Hampton Callaway: Our love is definitely deepening with time. It has been my great fortune to find the love of my life. And she also loves music, so she tours with me. She even does hair and makeup and is kind of a road manager, and greets the fans. Our life is a celebration of what music brings out in people. It's a fantastic time in my life to spend with her and to be open about who we are.

Accentuating the positive

EDGE: Anybody who follows you on Twitter or Facebook knows that you are incredibly positive-perhaps you should write a book of affirmations. Where does that come from and how do you maintain it?

Ann Hampton Callaway: I think people are born with a certain personality. I was born not just with the glass half full, but full. My grandmother once read the poem "The Optimist's Creed" to me, and that really influenced me. My parents grew up through all this turmoil-assassinations and war-and gave us a sense of wanting to make a difference. I was philosophical as a kid, reading all the great works. We need to have better relationships with each other. I now practice Siddha yoga, which emphasizes that God is in everyone and everything. We live in a time that deafens that still voice in us, but once we recognize who we really are in our souls, there is greater awareness.

EDGE: Barbra was never shy about politics, and sometimes you are not either. What is most important to you about the upcoming election?

Ann Hampton Callaway: I hope that people will vote. I'm an independent, a centrist in my heart. I believe in voting for the person. I try to respect people with different views. We've lost that. But there are important stakes about the direction in which our country is going. I think the President needs another four years to finish what he started. I'm concerned about the alternative, what that will mean for women, the middle class, relations around the world. The challenge of democracy is how to bring people together.

EDGE: You and your sister Liz had success with "Boom," a live album that celebrated the pop hits of the '60s and '70s (the Baby Boomer generation). Has that opened up possibilities for you to try some different musical directions in the future?

Ann Hampton Callaway: As a songwriter, I feel I've done so little with my songs. And it's complicated, because I don't just sing or write in one genre. It's been an interesting adventure of weaving my jazz influence and acting and cabaret performance. Two of my favorite songs to perform are "Landslide" and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." I love the writing of the giants of the Great American Songbook, but I want to spend more time and attention to the sensibility in pop songs. For this show, I had a wonderful time working with David Shire on "Starting Here, Starting Now," making it into a jazz waltz. I always start with the lyric, but the jazz sensibility brings some freshness to the material. I first did the Barbra show with the Boston Pops and we got nine standing ovations. It was one of the great nights of my life.

True to musical roots

EDGE: Sidney Myer, when he's encouraging young singers, likes to tell the story of how in your early days at Don't Tell Mama, you'd do a show and seven or eight people would be in the audience. But one of them was Fran Drescher. When she made it big, of course, she recruited you to write and sing the theme song for "The Nanny." You are one of the few who has made it in this difficult business, and by staying true to your musical roots. How would you encourage younger singers who are trying to make it?

Ann Hampton Callaway: I love teaching master classes. We did two TV specials [for PBS] called "The Singer's Spotlight." Because of the economy, we may try to continue it as a radio show. But the idea is to have a show that will teach young singers about good singing. Let them see the legends sing. Learn about emotional nuances, the lyrics, the layers of meaning. Follow your heart and inner instincts. Find your own compass. Surround yourself with people who are better than you are and be a sponge. Don't become cynical about the business, but be excited about the artistic potential. Absorb all the great art. Keep a journal. Take good care of your health. Support yourself with positive people and distance yourself from those who aren't supportive.

EDGE: Wow, I feel like I just got a master class in thirty seconds!

Ann Hampton Callaway: [Laughs] We're all in this together. Some people think I'm very successful, but compared to others . . . it's all relative. You know, 'You're only as good as your last thing.' We all have our own insecurities and anxieties to deal with. Even Barbra Streisand probably has to deal with the enormous pressure of being Barbra Streisand.

EDGE: With this economy, we continue to have closings and openings of rooms. What do you think of the new 54 Below?

Ann Hampton Callaway: It's a fabulous room. I'm really excited to perform there. There's not a bad seat in the house. It's elegant but not stuffy. You can hear something great there any night of the week, the talent level is so high. Plus, the same team that worked with me on Swing put the room together, so there's a personal connection. I hope they succeed.

Ann Hampton Callaway appears nightly at 54 Below, September 25-29, 2012. Go to the 54 below website for details on seating and tickets.

Watch Ann Hampton Callaway sing "How High The Moon":

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).